The Linguistic Revolution at the University of KwaZulu-Natal

Published On: 17 November 2022|

The University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) is one of the country’s pioneers in developing a language policy, a process that started in 2004 and culminated in isiZulu being given official status alongside English.

There have been huge rewards since then, with a Law student about to graduate with a PhD that has been written entirely in isiZulu, a first for Law at the University.

In 2019, UKZN once again began teaching Kiswahili, considered one of the top 10 most spoken languages in the world, with more than 200 million people in Africa and the Middle East conversing in it. It is also one of the working languages of the African Union (AU) and of the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

Dean and Head of the School of Arts at UKZN, Professor Nobuhle Hlongwa (left), was part of a delegation of academics who travelled to Tanzania earlier this year to participate in the world’s first Kiswahili Language Day.

Says the professor – who was also recently named the new Chairperson of Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) Community of Practice for the Teaching and Learning of African Languages (CoPAL) and takes on the role from January 1, 2023: “We were invited to participate in the celebrations due to the School of Arts having an existing MoU (memorandum of understanding) with the Institute of Kiswahili Studies (IKS) at the University of Dar es Salaam. It was emotional to see people celebrating their indigenous language freely and being proud of their heritage.

“The teaching of Kiswahili had begun at UKZN in 2013. However, due to factors related to permits for lecturers, it was put on hold. But we resuscitated the teaching thereof in 2019 and it is going strong. We also offer French because of the many Francophone countries in Africa. All these initiatives align with the vision and mission of UKZN and the realisation of United Nations’ Sustainable Development goals 2030 and the African Union’s agenda 2063.”

Professor Hlongwa is delighted that UKZN – which positions itself as a Premier University of African Scholarship – teaches languages that forge African identity and unity which, she believes, is critical for Pan Africanism and continental integration.

UKZN to develop a second African language

She also reveals that the University is to develop a second African language in addition to isiZulu: “We are proposing Sesotho in 2024 and are currently canvasing the university community. We have already signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the University of the Free State as they have already made great strides with the development of terminology with regards to this language and we don’t want to reinvent the wheel but would rather learn from them while also sharing our resources for mutual benefit.”

Professor Hlongwa was explaining UKZN’s language journey in the context of the current African Languages agenda. This is in keeping with the spirit and purpose of the revised Language Policy Framework for Public Higher Education Institutions that was gazetted in October 2020 and which came into effect in January 2022.

The Dean was also speaking ahead of the second Vice-Chancellors’ Language Colloquium –themed Moving the Conversation Forward – which will be hosted in a hybrid format from the University of Pretoria’s Senate Hall on the main (Hatfield) campus on December 1 and 2 this year.

Organised in partnership with CoPAL, the Colloquium, primarily targeted at the 26 Vice-Chancellors of South Africa’s public universities, will also be attended by DVCs, language and legal experts, senior policymakers from relevant departments including the Department of Higher Education and Training, the Pan South African Language Board and other key stakeholder entities. The December meeting follows the initial consultation among Vice-Chancellors, which took place in September 2021 as part of an envisaged three-meeting series.

The value of teaching in mother tongue languages

Teaching in the mother tongue, she says, has many proven benefits for students; for example, there is an opportunity for expanding cognitive skills as students learn through the language that they best understand.

Professor Hlongwa referenced the late Professor Neville Alexander, a recognised advocate of linguistic diversity and proponent of terminological development in African languages in order to develop them for use in the tertiary education space.

”When students learn in their mother tongue, they are in a better position to apply the skills they have gained. If we do not teach in the languages that the majority of the students speak, we are depriving them of their basic linguistic rights. When mother tongue is used, the principle of inclusion is being acknowledged as well as providing democracy in education.”

UKZN’s language journey

Professor Hlongwa, who has been a key participant in the development of UKZN’s language policy since the very beginning, gave a background to the University’s impressive language journey.

UKZN is the result of the merger of the old University of Natal with the University of Durban-Westville. As far back as 2004, UKZN set out to develop a language policy based on consultations within the university community. Professor Hlongwa was instrumental in this. Based on the framework of the National Language Policy for Higher Education of 2002, UKZN approved its bilingual language policy in 2006.

The guiding principles of this policy recommended that the university develop the use of isiZulu as a language of instruction and communication, in line with recommendations of the Ministerial Committee report, which investigated the development of indigenous African languages as a medium of instruction in higher education. UKZN’s implementation of the bilingual policy began in 2008, under the responsibility of the University’s appointed language board and faculties.

A pilot programme of 2007-2009

A three-year pilot programme (2007-2009) which provided isiZulu training for both students and staff was implemented. Called Multilingualism to Promote Access Retention and Successful Profession Training, it is part of the South African Norway Tertiary Educational (SANTED) programme and focuses on enabling graduates in four professional disciplines – psychology, dental assisting, nursing and education – to interact with clients in both isiZulu and English.

Professor Hlongwa said that this included the development of short professional programmes: ”For example, if you are working as a nurse you must be able to communicate with the patient in their own language. It’s the same for a psychologist.”

Infrastructure support

This policy milestone at UKZN was followed by the Charter to constitute the University Language Board (ULB) in 2010; amended in 2014 with a second revision currently underway. The ULB is a sub-committee of the Senate, constituted in order to develop, implement, monitor and review the University Language Policy and Plan. It then established the University Language Planning and Development Office (ULPDO),a facility established to operationalise and sustain the Language Policy and Plan.

Professor Hlongwa continues: “UKZN is also part of a newer initiative BAQONDE (Boosting the Use of African Languages in Higher Education) which is an Erasmus+ programme funded by the European Union. This collaborative project between European and South African Higher Education Institutions facilitates and promotes the use of indigenous African languages as a medium of instruction in tertiary education. It involves UKZN along with North-West University, the University of the Western Cape and Rhodes University and three European universities, namely Trinity College Dublin, University of Groningen in The Netherlands and Spain’s University of Salamanca.”

Opposition and resistance

She admits there were many obstacles to overcome in the early days, particularly opposition and resistance from both staff and members of the community: “They said isiZulu students should transfer to the University of Zululand (UZ). They wanted us as members of the Senate language committee to go and promote Zulu nationalism at UZ. However, we continued and, as a university, we took a bold step and came up with a 20- year Language Implementation Plan.

“It was imperative that the Plan was applied and so, the Language Board was set up to drive and oversee it with representatives from all faculties and colleges reporting on what they do. This includes departments such as Finance, the Registrar and Human Resources Management. Every division within the University has a role to play.”

She admits that there is a cost to multilingualism: “This was initially a huge problem. However, we received much support from the university executives. The university has put aside funding for the implementation of the language policy because we cannot rely only on government for money. We still need more funding to sustain everything that we do and one of the ways to do this is through the monetising of research.”

Innovations for successful implementation

Technologial innovations at UKZN include mobile apps for terminologies in the various disciplines as well as spell checkers in isiZulu.

Professor Langa Khumalo, a former Director of Language Planning and Development at UKZN, initiated and led the development of the isiZulu National Corpus (INC) at UKZN (now recognised as the biggest corpus in African languages), the English-IsiZulu Parallel Corpus (EIPC) and the IsiZulu Oral Corpus (IOC). It has now superseded Kiswahili in terms of numbers.

She continues: “You cannot wait for terminology to be developed before you start using a language; terminology is developed as languages are used. A number of disciplines at UKZN now have bilingual terminologies.”

One of the rules promulgated at the University, instituted in 2014, required students to register, participate in and pass a semester course in basic isiZulu, she explains.

“These have been hugely important for the professional programmes and we get students asking for further classes because they realise how beneficial the courses are for their profession as they enter the work space. We are also proud of the fact that all the students who are graduating with PhDs, have their abstracts translated into isiZulu so we now have developed an important academic data base.

“A number of our lecturers have also proven that you don’t have to know an African language as a lecturer in order to facilitate bilingual teaching within your classroom,” Professor Hlongwa says, giving an example of Dr Andrew-John Bethke from the School of Arts Music department.

“He allowed both languages and is so passionate about multilingualism and what it has achieved that his book, titled Introduction to Music Fundamentals Part 1, has been translated into isiZulu as part of the project funded by the National Institute for the Humanities and Social Sciences.”

Janine Greenleaf Walker is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.